The dilapidated infrastructure of the Undernet rumbled with increasing intensity. The creak an groan of bending metal echoed across one lonely area as some invisible force pushed its way up from below. The walkways and platforms were being pushed away to make room for something new. In the earliest moments of this transformation of the landscape, the only navis within the sector to witness it were the quintet to rise from the abyss from which the world-moving power emanated. They were moving quickly and tensely, as if fleeing whatever frightening entity was just behind them in the darkness. They weren't moving quickly enough.
"I thought it would be a relief to touch solid, unpolluted ground again." Plantman griped. "Why can't I just jack out?"
"Because you don't want to abandon your friends that don't have PETs to return to?" Beastman gestured to Bubble, Burst, and Shade behind them, who were all moving more slowly and looking worse for wear.
"I wasn't asking you. I was asking Stuart. I've been trying to log out for five minutes, what's going on?"
The voice of Plantman's operator answered back. "There's a blocking field surrounding the area now. It seems to be growing along with whatever is following you up from the Darkloid's lair. Not sure how big it is now, but I'd advise you to keep running regardless."
Beastman's tail fuzzed out. "Uh oh. Blocking field. That's always a bad sign. Usually means it's about to get real."
"It means it's going to be an even longer day than it's been already, at least." Plantman sighed, then turned to yell at the navis trailing behind him and Beast. "Hey, will you guys pick up the pace? I want to get out of here some time this century!"
Bubble and Shade were staggering now. They clutched their heads in pain and it seemed they couldn't even hear Plantman. Burstgirl was healthy enough, but she was hanging back to look after the others. She answered since the others couldn't. "Something is wrong with them. They've been getting worse ever since we escaped. I...I don't know what to do for them..."
"Well, Wrap them up and carry them!" Plant threw his hands up. "I've got a nice, peaceful garden back in the upper net where I'm sure Stuart and I can heal them somehow."
"Alright, then lead the way!" Burstgirl encased her companions in two more large bubbles that floated alongside her as she ran to catch up with the others.
They didn't get very far before the rumbling gave way to windy howl and a ghostly blue light cast long shadows in front of them. They couldn't resist the impulse to turn and and see what had chased them up from the abyss. There, filling the sky above the walkways surrounding the pit was a writhing cloud of multi-colored lights. It looked like the contents of the Darkloids' altar turned inside-out. Each light was a navi's soul, like Shademan had been not long ago. The cloud trailed a twisting pillar that snaked down into the shadows where the Darkloid lair was hidden. Souls continued to rise from below but they all stopped in the shrieking swarm above them. The center of the cloud glowed more brightly as the spirits coalesced to a point.
"I thought those lights turned back into navis when they were released. What's going on?" Beastman tried to ask Bubs, the only one who had insight into the Darkloids' ways.
There was still no answer, but Bubble and Shade were looking less and less weak as the cloud grew in intensity. They began to scream and struggle, forcing Burstgirl's bubbles to pop. Once freed, they shot into the air in a beeline towards the cloud, much to their companions' horror.
"Where are you idiots going!? We're supoosed to be running away from that thing!" Plantman shouted after them.
"I don't think they're in control of their own bodies..." Burstgirl surmised with a worried tone. She then turned to the sound of similar screams rising in pitch from the other direction. "...I don't think they are, either..."
Plant and Beast turned just in time to duck as a horde of navis flew past them at blinding speed. Most were just blurs to their perspective, but the ones they focused on briefly appeared to be unremarkable Normal and Heel types, not the kind known for high-speed flight. While there were many different, unrelated kinds of navis streaking across the sky, every one was surrounded in a purple aura that binded them together under the influence of a common will. They joined the cloud as the light in the center grew brighter.
Beastman blinked. "Did you see that?"
"Kinda hard to miss, Beast." Plantman retorted.
"I meant I'm pretty sure a couple of those navis was Darklady..."
Plant shrugged. "It seems like half the navis on the net got sucked into that thing. I wouldn't be surprised if you saw someone you recognized, statistically speaking."
"Yeah, but what does Darklady have in common with Shade and Bubs, huh?"
"Since when did Bubs have a thing for bats and purple?" Plantman wondered. Then he remembered. "Oh yeah...The Darkloid thing. Are all those navis darkchip users?"
"Look out, there are two more headed right for us!" Burstgirl pointed to the navis fast approaching from the distance. They were different from the ones that flew into the cloud. Neither was glowing violet and one was running rather than flying. Beast and Plant weren't any happier to see them as they drew closer though.
Drillman and Overdrive closed in and positioned themselves on either side of the trio. The two Officials brandished their weapons and eyed the former Acid Hackers suspiciously. "What have you guys gotten mixed up in this time?" Drill interrogated.
"Hey, we had nothing to do with that!" Beast protested, pointing his paw at the howling soul cloud. "...I think. Could we have caused it, actually?" He cocked his head at Plant.
"I can honestly say we have no idea what's going on back there." Plantman stated calmly, but not entirely honestly. "We just happened to be here, and now we can't jack out. Why don't you explain why you're here?"
"One of our own and a large amount of other navi citizens suddenly went out of control and gathered here." Overdrive summarized. "We got here too late to catch our fellow agent, but here we find two known netcriminals. Affiliates of Flashman and Mistman no less. Coincidence?"
"Uh...yes?" Beastman looked confused. "What do Flash and Mist even have to do with anything? I haven't seen either of them in forever!"
"And what do you mean by 'fellow agent'?" Plantman added warily.
"Moe and I are Officials now. Get with the program." Drill said impatiently.
Beast shook his head. "No thanks. We tend not to get along."
"Officials." Plantman said through grit teeth, holding back his bile. "Just what we need."
"Just what we need!" Burstgirl echoed without the sarcasm. "Two friends of ours were pulled into that cloud too! Can you help us save them?"
The Official navis were taken aback. Overdrive inspected Burst curiously. "Do I know you? There's something familiar..."
"My name is Burstgirl. I met these guys a couple days ago. We're not doing anything bad, I swear! We just want to help Bubbleman and Shademan!"
"Shade!?" Drill exclaimed. "The Darkloids got him. How the hell was he with you?"
"Wasn't Bubbleman one of the Darkloids?" Overdrive added.
"You're the one that needs to catch up." Plant chuckled. "We cured Bubs of his Darkloid phase days ago and he led us to his old hideout so we could get Shademan out. See? That's nothing bad, right? We're actually doing you a service."
Overdrive was aghast. "You mean we've been putting all of the Officials' resources into hunting down the Darkloids all week and you punks found their nest first?"
"You guys! It doesn't matter!" Burstgirl waved frantically to get everyone's attention. "How are we going to get them back?"
Overdrive and Drillman took another look at the swelling cloud of souls looming overhead in the distance and couldn't manage to hide their uncertainty. "That's...a tough one. We need to figure out what caused this first." Drill reasoned. "So wait, you're here because this is where the Darkloids were hiding, I take it?"
Plantman wasn't happy about being questioned by Officials in any situation, but he had to admit this was probably the kind of thing to leave to them. "...Not this exact spot, obviously. Their hole was down there where the fireworks are coming from."
Overdrive nodded. "So other Darkloids and navis that were Darkloids are being drawn to the Undernet, right above the base of operations of the particular Darkloids we've been looking for."
Beastman looked up. "Your other agent was Darklady, right? I thought I saw her flying in."
Drill and Over looked at each other nervously. She grit her teeth and continued. "Uh...not exactly, but that makes sense, huh? I guess we have to count out Metalman, while we're at it."
"The one we're looking for is a female reincarnation of Flameman, if that counts for anything." Drillman felt he owed the former Acid Hackers the update on their old ally, trusting for the moment that they had not actually been following all of his team's progress along with Blackbelt.
"Makes about as much sense as anything else we've seen today." Beast shrugged. "Anyway, if what you're getting at is that the Darkloids are behind this, then why did Bowlman seem as surprised as anyone when it all started? We were fighting him down there when their imprisoned souls flew the coop."
"Oh...that might complicate things." Overdrive said ponderously.
Burstgirl's hopes sank. The Officials didn't know how to help her friends any more than she did. Moreover, the two new arrivals mainly kept their eyes on Plant and Beast, and Plant and Beast in turn were focused on the Officials. They were too distrustful of each other to pay attention to the phenomenon in the sky. Only Burst faithfully kept watch, looking for some sign of Bubbleman and Shademan within the rising glare, looking for any indication of a weakness in the cloud of energy, some way to go in after them without being swallowed up in the storm. But they took too long and it was already too late. She could only shield her eyes as the last of the souls and navis merged with the center in a blinding flash. The others could say no more and only watch in fear and awe as a large structure took shape in that spot as the light subsided.
The sudden appearance of solid matter instantly destroyed the original walkways and platforms on every elevation level in the center of that area of the Undernet. In their place towered an ornate building of glimmering blue crystal. The outer wall of which was circular overall, with multiple towers jutting upwards to a point at scattered angles. It was a majestic palace out of a fantasy, at least at the top. Closer to the base, the glowing crystal walls turned to black obsidian, and the intricate architecture warped into flowing amorphous rock. The base tapered downwards as a twisted cone, and hanging off the bottom were innumerable black tendrils that twitched and undulated in concert with one another. High in the castle keep, from a balcony looking down on the fractured landscape, an amplified voice issued a bold announcement that was heard clear beyond the bounds of the area:
"Attention, denizens of the Undernet! Your days of anarchy are at an end, the old rituals no longer hold any power, and there is no more need to fear the encroaching Darkness. We have brought order to the chaotic energies of the Darkloids. We have replaced their decaying relics with Our eternal brilliance! You now exist to serve Us, to spread Our dominion across this world! Let the new diamond rule commence! Let all who oppose Our authority come forth to test their defiance against Our invincible fortress, Our undying army! Thus decrees your Queen Majesty!"
"That bitch serious?" said Beastman, the first of the navis below to respond to the proclamation.
"That's the chess navi Flamechick and I encountered the other day." Drillman recalled as he stared up at the castle in dumbfounded awe. "This...this is Blackbelt's doing. That data he stole...Somehow it's allowed him to control the Darkloids..."
"Okay, but is she serious?" Beast reiterated. "Rule the Undernet? Can she do that just by making a magic floating castle out of Darkloids?"
Drillman pondered for a moment, then shifted to flight mode. "One way to find out."
From their position down below, it was hard to get a sense of the full scale of the castle, much less see where to enter it or where to go to find its master. Once in the air though, Drill could see the balcony, with Queen Majesty perched confidently at the edge, seemingly vulnerable. She wasn't alone there though. As he drew closer, Drill recognized the distinctive shape of his old ally, Kingman, albeit not in his distinctive black and red colors. His body was now marble white and his robe was royal purple, the same combination as the woman to his left. While the Queen was poised with her head held high and beaming in triumph, King stood neutrally with his hands behind his back and staring absently ahead. He didn't seem upset to occupy his position enshrined at the head of a mad campaign against his will. He seemed merely resigned, ready to watch whatever passed, regardless of the consequences. After the ambiguous way their last encounter ended, Drillman wasn't entirely surprised to see Kingman there. He couldn't fathom why the noble hero would willingly side with megalomaniacs like this, but it was the least of his worries at that moment.
Drillman aimed directly at the Queen and shot himself and two other missiles at her. If she really was the one leading the way, he wasn't going to waste any time taking her out to make things easier. He could tell she wouldn't make it so easy as to stand unprotected on the outside of her fortress, so he wasn't caught off-guard when the missiles detonated before even flying over the outer wall. He tried to veer off himself at the last second, but still collided with the invisible wall of force encapsulating the castle. It sent him bouncing off and careening away. He managed to regain control before he crashed, but he could now tell a frontal assault was off the table. He returned to the spot where Overdrive and the others were gathered.
"Alright, she might be serious. There's a barrier that must be made of the combined power of every navi that got sucked into it." Drill shrugged, stumped as to how to proceed.
"Use your wormholes to get past the barrier then?" Plantman suggested in a tone that said he thought Drillman was an idiot for not doing that right away.
"Energy barriers affect subspace as well as regular cyberspace. I can't go around them, only through them, and this one is a little too tough for my drills."
"Well Darkloid energy or not, no barrier can last forever." Overdrive noted. "Tricia's putting in the call across the base. More Officials are on the way, and I suspect a whole lot of pissed-off Underdwellers are too. We'll chip away at the barrier with attacks from superior numbers, and then bring down the castle itself."
"And will that get our friends back?" Burstgirl implored.
"No idea if that's even possible, but it'll be easier to figure out once the threat is removed."
Beastman grimaced and shook his mane. "Hold on. What threat, exactly? Besides the loud smack talk, what can she do besides float there in a giant eyesore? Maybe we can take our time figuring out how to get Bubs out of there."
"Since when do you go for the non-violent option?" asked Plantman.
"Hey, if you see anyone to fight, let me know. I'm not as enthusiastic about beating up walls as guys with drills on their head."
Drillman glared at Beast. "As much as I enjoy breaking walls, I actually agree with you in this case, though it sickens me to say it. I say let the Underdwellers test its defenses. Unless there's something that castle can do offensively, what's the rush?"
"She mentioned an army, didn't she? An undying army?" Overdrive reminded them.
"If she means her chess pieces...okay, they may have thrown me for a loop before, but they're not really a large-scale threat."
A flash of light behind them captured their attention. Someone had teleported in. "Don't forget the navis that made this all possible." Flashman stood with his arms crossed several panels down the walkway.
"Flash!? These guys weren't kidding. What's your deal, bro?" Beastman nearly forgot their troubles and was just excited to see his old teammate.
"New op. New programming." Flash admitted, listlessly. "Not by choice, but there's nothing I can do about it. If you can, you should just run, or you're next." As he spoke, other navis began teleporting in around him on other walkways that led away from the castle. Archer, Executioner, Jester, Dragoon, Magister, and Mistman were soon all present and standing at the ready.
Drill, Over, Beast, and Plant assumed battle stances against the forces of Blackbelt. "So that's what you're out to do? Capture and enslave navis by reprogramming?" Overdrive came to the implied conclusion.
"Close. We..." Flash unfolded his arms to gesture Mist and the Children of Vengeance around him. "...actually don't have to do anything ourselves any more. We're just posted here to watch and supervise once more resistance shows up. All the heavy lifting will be done by them." He pointed past Over and the others back towards the castle. They glanced over their shoulders to notice a flurry of activity at the base of the structure.
Emerging from between the shaking black tendrils hanging off the bottom of the fortress were countless purple lights that were flying down towards them in erratic paths like a swarm of insects. Six were flying faster than the others, and as they drew closer, they could be recognized as familiar custom navis. Bubbleman, Shademan, Flamechick, Metalman, Darklady, and Bowlman. All of them appeared as hollow-eyed, violet-tinted ghosts of their former selves. Behind them, a legion of other navis with the same shadowy complexion, all flying under a power not their own. This was the army Queen Majesty spoke of -- the same navis that composed the castle, reanimated as phantom soldiers to do her bidding.
"By the way..." Flash added. "Mist and I get off comparitively easy with our custom programming that prevents us from acting against our masters. They don't have time for that with every navi in the net. You guys will get force-fed darkchips until Blackbelt's server can take over and you become like them. Good luck, is all I can say."
"Hey, Beast." Plantman spoke. "I see someone to fight."
"Thanks, I hadn't noticed."
The Darkloid slaves closed in, bearing their weapons, no sense of recognition in their eyes. Their targets stood their ground. They were out of options. It was time for battle.
* * *